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 » Special Report  | Timeline  |  Faces of September 11  |  Fighting Terror

Bin Laden's whereabouts, fate remain a mystery

Osama bin Laden appeared on tape on Al Jazeera television just hours after U.S.-led forces began bombing Afghanistan in October 2001.
Osama bin Laden appeared on tape on Al Jazeera television just hours after U.S.-led forces began bombing Afghanistan in October 2001.  


From Barbara Starr
CNN

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Just six days after the September 11 attacks, President Bush was unequivocal about Osama bin Laden, suggesting the United States wanted the al Qaeda leader dead or alive.

But over the last year, that vow remains unfulfilled, and no one seems to know what has happened to the world's most wanted man.

"He may be alive," Bush said this summer. "If he is, we'll get him. If he's not alive, we got him."

While many theories exist, there are no hard answers. But experts make a compelling case for either scenario.

"I personally think he is probably not with us anymore," said Dale Watson, who is retiring soon as the FBI's counterterrorism chief.

One reason, Watson said, is that bin Laden's former bodyguards are in U.S. custody at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and they would not have been captured away from their boss unless he was dead.

Another indication that bin Laden is dead is the absence of any verified sighting, videotape or audio recording of him in nine months.

Still, some intelligence analysts said bin Laden simply might be lying low. If he were dead, they argue, intercepts would have picked up chatter from his many followers.

Bin Laden's 'second home'

Some observers have speculated that bin Laden may be in northwestern Pakistan near the Afghan border, an area that CNN terrorism analyst Peter Bergen says is like a "second home" for him.

In late December 2001, bin Laden made another taped appearance on Al Jazeera in which he called the September 11 attacks a
In late December 2001, bin Laden made another taped appearance on Al Jazeera in which he called the September 11 attacks a "blessed terror."  

"He has been building basically places to hide in the mountains throughout the war against the Soviet Union," Bergen said. "I imagine he may be using some of those. That is why it is going to be very hard to find him."

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld recently suggested several reasons why bin Laden might be avoiding appearing on videotape.

"One might be he is not physically able because he is injured in some way," Rumsfeld said. "Another might be because he is afraid if he does he will get caught."

A bin Laden videotaped statement released in late December showed the al Qaeda leader moving his right hand but his left arm never moves and the left hand is never seen in the video, leading to speculation he had been wounded.. The statement also was released after the intensive U.S. bombing campaign in the Tora Bora region, where bin Laden was suspected of hiding.

In an audiotape broadcast on the Qatar-based, Arabic language television network Al Jazeera in June, al Qaeda spokesman Sulaiman Abu Ghaith said bin Laden and other top al Qaeda leaders were safe and planning more attacks on the United States.

The spokesman also suggested bin Laden would appear on television soon.

"Given the fact that the al Qaeda media spokesman has now said that, if bin Laden doesn't come out, let's say, by around 9/11, then surely there must be some sort of problem," Bergen said.

But the analyst said he doubts there's anything wrong with bin Laden.

"I believe that he is alive," he said. "I think that most analysts do."

Is catching the terrorist leader critical?

Intelligence experts are combing the Internet in the hopes some recent e-mail messages may contain "markers"-- code words used specifically by bin Laden -- that could indicate he's alive.

In December 2001, the Bush administration released a tape showing bin Laden bragging about the September 11 attacks.
In December 2001, the Bush administration released a tape showing bin Laden bragging about the September 11 attacks.  

Even if he is, though, his whereabouts remain a mystery.

A videotape made in Kandahar, Afghanistan, late last year shows bin Laden already had moved from his longtime hideouts near the border with Pakistan. Rumors have continued that by December he was in the eastern Afghan mountains of Tora Bora but then escaped again.

A reward of up to $25 million for bin Laden also hasn't led to his capture.

"The people around him are not motivated by money," Bergen said. "Clearly, they are aware of this reward; it is being widely advertised in Afghanistan, Pakistan. No one is taking it up."

Even if bin Laden is alive, finding him may not bring much comfort, as al Qaeda is rumored to be planning more attacks.

"Is he critical?" Rumsfeld asked. "He is important. There are plenty of people who -- six, eight, 10, 12 people probably -- who could take over al Qaeda."



 
 
 
 


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